The Evolution of a Book, Part 1: Choosing a Topic

I’m currently finishing up a book manuscript for LSU Press tentatively entitled “Andrew Jackson, Southerner.” As I’m completing the writing phase and enter the editing process, I wanted to look back and examine how the book developed. This post will be the first in a series that I’ll write looking ahead to the book’s publication.*

As I was editing the Donelson biography in the summer of 2006, I began thinking about the topic of my next book. I had several ideas, including:

  • A study of the southern Know-Nothing party
  • A study of the Constitutional Union party
  • A biography of Millard Fillmore
  • A study of Jackson’s Kitchen cabinet
  • A study of slavery in Tennessee
  • A biography of Jackson

The latter two topics were at the top of my list. Chase C. Mooney wrote a study of slavery several decades ago, but its usefulness was limited by its organization and the growth of slavery historiography. Tackling the topic would be difficult. I lived in New Hampshire, so the logistics of getting access to sources was a major obstacle. And, to be honest, I wasn’t confident that I knew enough about the nitty-gritty of researching slave records to do an adequate job.

The second topic was a better fit in a number of ways. I was very familiar with Jacksonian historiography, and I thought there was a need for a brief, fresh Jackson biography. (Remini’s was in its third decade in print, Hendrik Booraem’s covered only Jackson’s time in the Carolinas, and Andrew Burstein’s took a limited and unusual perspective on Jackson’s passions.) The two reasons I hesitated were logistics (see above) and the fear of pegging myself too narrowly as someone who only wrote biographies of Jackson and his family.

When my family and I went out for dinner with John and Jeanne Marszalek at Old Venice Pizza in Starkville that summer, then, I was looking for guidance. I told John about my ideas and asked for his advice. He asked me what I wanted to be known for; my reply was, “I want to be recognized as one of the major Jacksonian scholars.” Not surprisingly, his recommendation was the Jackson biography. John argued that attaching my name to a well-known figure such as Jackson was more apt to gain me the recognition I sought than a state-level study of slavery.

John confirmed my gut feeling. I sent the proposal for “Andrew Jackson, Southerner,” an interpretation of Old Hickory as a “southern patron, planter, and politician,” to Bert Wyatt-Brown, who was editor of the Southern Biography Series, in August 2006. The Press signed off on it, with a delivery deadline of October 2011 for the approximately 100,000-word manuscript. My purpose was to write a modern biography accessible to undergraduates and general readers. I also wanted to bring a new interpretation to Jackson’s life.

(Part 2 is here.)

* I have an advance contract with LSU Press for this book. If it’s not fit to print, I guess you’ll read about my failure!

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